Cooking in Kelp Bags: Māori style.

Finally, back home from our Kiwi wanderings and all fired up to get back to our island home on Bruny and to put some of the new knowledge on cooking with fire to practice.  On reflection, New Zealand’s geography is one of extremes.  A land of fire and ice.

But its people, both Kiwi and Māori alike, proved down home courteous and friendly.  We can all mock the Kiwi accent (a Sydney friend thought that ‘beckpeckers’ were a kind of wading bird) but the Māori language is lyrical to listen to.  A swine for an outsider to read though, and many a township on our touring map received a verbal scrambling.

Inspired by Al Brown’s use of kelp for cooking crays (check out Kaikoura CuisineI learnt later about the Māori tradition of bull kelp (rimurapa) bags for both cooking and storing  food.

These kelp bags, or pōhā are an ingenious use of a natural material, that were produced in large quantities during summer in preparation for the muttonbirding season. Harvested from the sea, they were then opened up and inflated.In this photograph, taken near Foveaux Strait in 1910, a woman splits open the kelp with her hand, while a man inflates a blade.  Inflated blades were hung up to dry for several days, then deflated and rolled up.

In autumn the bags were taken to the islands around Stewart Island where muttonbirds, or tītī, were caught. The kelp bags were filled with muttonbird chicks; an average-sized pōhā could hold up to 50 birds. When the bag was full, hot fat was poured over the birds and the top tied off to exclude air. Birds have been preserved for up to six years with this method.

I was very much impressed with this use of bull kelp, and knowing that we have copious amounts of the stuff on Bruny, I sought it out at Adventure Bay recently.

I was soon to learn that what I thought looked identical to the bull kelp of New Zealand, was in fact, quite a different creature……………..with quite a different structure.  The Kiwi bull kelp is made up of a honeycombed internal sections, which made it look quite easy to separate with a sharp knife.  The stuff that I’d found and wanted to use, was much denser, and at first, it didn’t look likely that I’d be able to open it up.

However, applying the same Māori principle of using the hand to part the kelp, I found that once I could get an opening started with a sharp knife……………..I was able to get my hand in……….

……..and was able to proceed until I’d separated all the way along the required length.Once a I’d made a couple of bags, I filled these with local pippis, mussels, chopped onion and garlic (note: no additional moisture is necessary as the juices from the shellfish make their own clear sauce). The bags were then ‘stitched’ together with wooden skewers and both were placed on the hot coals in the firepit.The secret to cooking the contents of these little masterpieces, is to watch that they don’t burn…….  …….but once they start to char, whip them out of the coals before the bags give way and you lose all the delicious juices.  Toss through some additional fresh oysters from Get Shucked……….………as well as some of the last of the summer season’s cherry tomatoes by green fingered Barry Weston (from Adventure Bay)…..

This finger lickin’ meal had a delicate smokey taste from the woodsmoke and charred kelp, with a slightly salty briney taste from the shellfish.  The meal was washed down with a nice chardy, and the juices mopped up with one of John’s fine sourdough loaves……..

……….straight from the Bruny Island Cheese Company’s wood oven.


5 Responses to “Cooking in Kelp Bags: Māori style.”

  1. Yum!!!

    That looks like fun, did the seaweed add a flavour?

  2. Because the kelp was allowed to char slightly, it added a salty smokey taste – a real sensation of the sea…….

  3. Wow!! What an amazing technique! I’ve never heard of that (in all my infinite wisdom, yes, I know!) method of making a bag out of kelp to cook or preserve food. I mean, obviously I’d seen woven seaweed baskets and carriers at TMAG since I was a kid, but never the spilt kelp system. Really cool! Next time we come to Bruny I’d love to have a go. The skewered pouches look beautiful in their own right. I can’t believe you didn’t harvest your own oysters from the beach though.Dad wouldn’t lend you his chisel?!

  4. Rere Huia Luckman Says:

    I was way down south and needed some space, peace and quiet. So I took off bush and forgot my billy. While wandering around the beaches I spied my favourite seaweed, bull kelp. Hmmmm I thought, I can make some bags with this to carry the kai moana I’d found. That afternoon I looked for some bits of old corrugated iron to cook my kai moana on. No luck…….so I put a bag of bull kelp with some of my gathered kai moana onto the coals. AWESOME……I used one bag 3 x before it got holes in it. My puku was full, the night was cold, I slept peacefully between my 2 campfires, on my mattress of bracken, curled up in my old army coat, beneath the stars. I was totally blissed.

    • Janice McEwen Says:

      Kia Ora Rere Huia Luckman, I love your story about cooking with poha out bush. I would like to use it in a piece I am writing about kelp in communities I have connections with for a publication being put together by the Lofoten Islands Arts Festival Kelp Congress (Arctic Norway). My connections with NZ are that I grew up on Ngai Tahu country (I was born in Scotland) my husband was Ngapui and my son is Ngati Porou. It’s wonderful to see the traditions kept alive and I had been wondering if kelp might ever have been used as a container in hangi. I hope this reaches you. Janice McEwen

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